America the Beautiful, Open to All
by Paul Kurtz
The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
United States is not “a Christian nation”
nor even ”Judeo-Christian”—contrary to what conservatives and
fundamentalists proclaim. The first Americans, who migrated from Asia to this
continent over the Bering Strait some 15 to 20 thousand years ago, were pagans!
Millions of Native Americans were already here when European conquerors—from
Spanish Conquistadors to English Puritan dissenters—arrived claiming to
“discover” America. White settlers drove the Indian tribes off their lands
or slaughtered them as they pushed westward.
Granted, at one time there was a Protestant majority among
these White settlers. After heavy Roman Catholic immigration in the nineteenth
century, one had to speak of a Christian majority. But add to this the Africans
who were forcibly brought here on slave ships, stripped of their native
religions, and compelled to convert to Christianity. Later, millions of Jewish
immigrants came to the United States seeking freedom.
Successive waves of immigration continue transforming
America today. It is the most religiously diverse country in the world.
According to the latest census, this process accelerated during the 1990s; as
never before, immigrants from all corners of the globe are reweaving the fabric
of American life.
This latter-day transformation is vividly depicted in a new
book by Harvard religion professor Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a
“Christian Country” Has Now Become the World’s Most Diverse Nation (San
Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001). Today Islamic mosques and Buddhist and Hindu
temples are being built in virtually every major city or suburb in America.
Asian immigration is no doubt a result of the 1965 immigration act signed by
President Lyndon Johnson, which repealed quotas tied to national origins. From
1990 to 1999, the Asian population increased by 43 percent, to nearly eleven
million. Today there are an estimated six million Muslims (rapidly growing not
only through immigration but also because of high birth rates and numerous
conversions), millions of Buddhists, one million Hindus, hundreds of thousands
each of Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Bahái, Jains, Confucians, Pagans, and Shintoists.
There are an estimated 1,350 diverse religious denominations in this country!
Similar changes are occurring in our nation’s racial and
ethnic mix. Hispanics increased by 38.8 percent, now numbering 33.3 million
(many of them evangelical Protestants). Given widespread intermarriage across
religious, racial, and ethnic lines, there are many Americans who are of mixed
parentage and express diverse talents and outlooks—as Tiger Woods so
eloquently illustrates. Added to this mix are the millions of Americans who
belong to no religious denomination (47 percent) or do not profess a belief in a
god or gods (8 to 11 percent). Twenty percent of Americans believe the Bible to
be an ancient book of fables recorded by man.
All of the above are now true-blue Americans, entitled to
equal protection of the laws; no one is a second-class citizen. In truth, every
American is a member of some minority; even “Baptist” and “Roman
Catholic” are minority labels. The United States is nothing less than a
microcosm of the planetary community, for it represents multicultural diversity,
a plurality of ethnic religious and nonreligious beliefs and values. Given the
conditions of freedom inherent in an open democratic society, all individuals
and groups—no matter what their gender, age or racial, religious, ethnic, or
creedal backgrounds—are entitled to pursue their own lifestyles. As I drive to
my offices every day, I pass by Episcopal, Unitarian, Methodist, Christian
Science, Mormon, and Roman Catholic churches, as well as Sikh, Hindu, and
Actually, history gives no warrant for saying what kind of
nation, religiously speaking, our country was meant to be. The United States as
a political state did not come into
being until the Constitution was ratified in 1787. The Articles of Confederation
(1777) and the Declaration of Independence (1776), which preceded the
Constitution, did not provide the basic legal framework for this country. The
Constitution makes no mention of God and explicitly provides that there is no
religious test for office; it guarantees political freedom to every citizen no
matter what his or her creed. The Civil War and the suffragist movement
eventually extended the franchise and other rights to African-Americans and
women. The fact that the White colonists were predominantly Protestant in the
seventeenth and eighteenth century (ignoring Blacks and Native Americans) does
not stamp America as indelibly Protestant or even Christian.
The United States is not a monotheistic nation either. Its
citizens hold a wide range of beliefs, from atheism through monotheism to
polytheism and even pantheism. The vigorous doctrinal disputes that have
invigorated life throughout the nation’s history should provide sufficient
evidence of America’s religious diversity.
And yet in spite of this, there are still brazen attempts
by fundamentalists—including many within the Bush/Ashcroft administration—to
reinterpret the Constitution, and to threaten the rights and liberties of
millions of Americans who do not share their own religious predilections.
Tim LaHaye and David Noebel in Mind Siege: The Battle for
Truth in the New Millennium (Nashville, Tenn.: World Publishing, 2000, reviewed
in the last issue of Free Inquiry) still insist that the United States is a
Christian country. Would they exclude Asian citizens who hold different beliefs?
They claim that secular humanism is the “established” religion of the United
States and wish to extirpate its influence from public life. We reply that
secular humanism is not a religion; it is a philosophical, scientific, and
ethical eupraxsophy (good wisdom in conduct). In any case, there is no common
religious creed that represents all of the people of the United States. The same
battle against religious tyranny that Jefferson waged against the
fundamentalists of his day apparently needs to be fought again today. James
Madison observed in The Federalist Papers that, if the Republic is to survive,
then it needs to avoid factions, and religious factions are among the most
dangerous. Many of the Founding Fathers were deists, not Christians; they
recognized that liberty of conscience is precious and that any effort to
establish an official American religious creed needs to be opposed.